The Importance of Freedom of the Press in a Democracy

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

First Amendment
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

From the dawn of the United States of America with the creation of the three branches of the government, journalists and news reporters have played the role of informing the people and holding political leaders accountable. The First Amendment that offers “freedom of speech and of the press” has been the aspect of the American constitution that has long empowered journalist to speak the truth, even if they are under duress and in harm’s way. Since the inception of the United States there has been conflict and tension between the press and governmental officials. In this way, Patrick D’Arcy (Editorial Manager of the TED Fellows program) states that “US history has been marked by an ongoing conflict between the government’s attempts to strengthen and protect itself and the press’s attempts to scrutinize and report on the government.” Part of the United State’s success as a democracy is owed to the country having a free press. D’Arcy also points out that “some of the most important voices before and during the American Revolution were anonymous pamphleteers who were writing under pseudonyms, talking about the crimes of the British government… speeches, pamphlets and newspapers” during the revolution “were critical in informing and galvanizing public support for the revolt.”
Why Freedom of the Press is More Important Now Than Ever

Attacks on Journalists and the Press
The past few decades have seen ever growing attacks on US journalists and members of the press. These attacks are seemingly coming to a crescendo under the Trump administration. Information from the press has been consistently characterized as unreliable sources of information. However, this trend and growing disdain for journalist and the news media is not just relegated to the US, but has a world-wide phenomenon. Freedom House -A US-based non-profit independent watchdog group that has monitored attacks on freedom and democracy around the world for over three quarters of a century,  stated that when freedom of the press is threatened it is “a threat to democracies.”
Attacks on the Records: The State of Global Press Freedom, 2017-2018

Because of much of the rhetoric hurled at the news media and the daily social media discourse disparaging journalists, there seems to be a growing public distrust of the news media and journalism. The term “fake news” has become a phrase that is used to discredit the validity of information coming from journalists and news outlets such as CNN, NPR, the Washington Post, The BBC News and the New York Times. Jim Rutenberg stated in an October 2018 New York Times article, that the term “fake news,” was coined by the Trump administration and casts all journalists (Accept those that agree with him) as the “enemy of the people.” This was a “negative branding campaign” that was aimed “against those who would hold him accountable” for his actions as the President of the United States. With many journalists and reporters being constantly under attack it is important to examine the critical role that the press plays in a democracy. The importance of the press and journalists in a democracy to keep the public informed and hold government officials accountable cannot be overstated.

The attacks on the news media has weakened the public’s faith in the press as a valid source of information. Rutenberg stated “By one measure, a CBS News poll over the summer, 91 percent of strong Trump supporters trust him to provide accurate information; 11 percent said the same about the news media.” This conversation becomes much more important and sinister when we are reminded that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi –who wrote a column regularly for the Washington Post, was killed by his government for being outspoken against the Saudi government. Read Jamal Khashoggi’s columns for The Washington Post

The Saudis then tried to cover it up and President Trump was very reluctant to condemn their government until he was backed into a corner when presented with overwhelming evidence.
Maybe He Did, Maybe He Didn’t’: Trump Defends Saudis, Downplays U.S. Intel

Importance of Free Press in a Democracy
Lawyer and free press advocate Trevor Timm states that “an independent press is one of the essential pillars of a democracy.” He also goes on to say that the First Amendment and its protection of the press “has always been the bulwark against secret government, against authoritarianism and against tyranny. The concept of a free press was intentionally and deliberately written into the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to preserve freedom of the people. The amendment was of grave importance in the eighteenth century during its inception, and is just as important now. The press is often thought of as a “fourth branch of government” because it also helps balance power in the government. Without that fourth branch the concept of a democratic system of government starts to weaken and after a while the democracy would crumble. We have examined the key role the press can play in a democracy. Below are some questions that may spark a meaningful classroom conversation.

Questions for Discussion
What role does the press play in your life?
Do you think there should be checks on the press like there are on the government?
Discuss how the idea of censorship can destroy a democracy.
Why is it critical for students to understand the importance of the First Amendment and Freedom of the Press?
How might a free press be related to the idea of critical thinking?

Why Freedom of the Press is More Important Now Than Ever World Press Freedom

Day, Brookings Experts Reflect on the Importance of a Free Press

Trump’s Attacks on the News Media Are Working


  1. I think that the press plays a big role in not only my life but the people around me as well. The way that we find out about current news and government news in general through the press. To me, the press is important to have around and know things that are happening around the world. We have the right to hear these things from the press.

  2. I believe the press is very important and plays an important role in many people’s lives. Although it is very true that having the press keeps citizens informed and updated on many things happening in the world, I also believe it could be very biased because it is based on the reporter’s/journalist’s thoughts. I also believe that the press could be corrupted through censorship and it could have two different affects on the public. For example, in North Korea, the press is monitored, “brainwashing” everyone that lives there to believe their dictator is “god”. Our press is not monitored, but the press plays a huge role in making most citizens believe that our president is an idiot. To me, the idea of censorship on free press could destroy a democracy because us as citizens would not hear all of the propaganda and everything told and shown would be twisted to make us believe and see what they want.

  3. I am passionate about the freedom of the press. I believe that it is an essential hallmark of our democracy. When the President of the United States uses terms like, “enemy of the people,” it is undermining the democracy that put him in the White House. It is very interesting to research the tension that historically has been present between the White House (or Congress) and the press. The hostility towards the press, and the journalists that make up the fourth estate, that marks today’s White House, however, creates a very real sense of unease from those who believe in the power of a free press.

  4. The press is everywhere, and therefore is a major part in everyone’s life. It is not only on the news, but also on our smartphones, televisions, and advertisements. When you first glance at an article, it is easy to make assumptions by the title, pictures, or heading, without even reading the whole thing. However, by doing that you miss the opportunity to analyze if what you are reading is really true. It’s funny how you can read the five articles on the same subject and be presented with five different versions of the same story. This causes confusion, miseducation, and uninformed opinions, which is why it should be monitored more strictly.

  5. In today’s world, press is obviously a big thing in everyone’s life. Press play’s a big role in my life by watching the news, or reading a magazine and seeing who is getting divorced and for how much and who is dating who and so on. However, with that being said, most of the time, it is fake. The press is just mainly looking for drama and a good story so they exaggerate it. I absolutely think there should be checks on the press like there are in government because the people of the United States need accurate and trustworthy information. The United States is a great place and we are very fortunate to have the first amendment, therefore it is critical for students to understand the first amendment and the Freedom of the Press, but it is also important to know not abuse it.

  6. The press is very important in all of our lives because it keeps us informed on what’s happening in the world around us. However, because of the freedom of press and the first amendment, while it is giving us information to inform us, we are being guided on what to think is important amidst all of the happenings around the world. The news is based on someone’s opinions and biases versus the truth. Yes, they all give facts to support these opinions and biases, but anyone can distort facts to support any argument. I agree there should be checks on the media, yet even so there would still be biases because we are humans and we all have our own opinions and views regardless of facts.

  7.  The press plays a huge role in my life its everywhere! Social media for sure. You never know if what your reading is actually true though. The press send out information for citizens to read up on and I think that’s great, I love knowing things. It’s important to know things that can affect you or the people you love. 

  8. To answer one of the questions above, I think there should be checks on the press. The press plays a very important role in everyone’s life, but it seems to me lately that the press has not been very truthful lately. Freedom of speech/press is important, but it’s always important on how you word things, especially when the whole world can hear it. I’ve heard a lot of biased information from the press, and if they are going to give us information based on the government, I think it should be real and honest, not just what they think or want from it.

  9. The press plays a big role in my life and the life of others around me. It keeps us informed. However with the amount of fake an opinionated news circulating I feel there should be closer checks on the press like their is the government. My biggest concern with journalism, although portrayed to always tell the truth, is that some journalist have the own bias which then alters the way they share information to the public. Although I am a big believer in freedom of the press I’m feeling a bit sceptic on it’s information lately. We have a right to free public press but we also have a right to the truth.

  10. To answer one of the question in the discussion section, the press tends to play a big role in my life. Actually, I believe the press plays a big role in all of our lives. The press is how we find things out about current things going on in the government. I feel as though it is important to have around, I mean, it is our right to the press!

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